What is the Value of Volunteering?
Volunteer (noun): a person who voluntarily offers himself or herself for a service or undertaking, or a person who performs a service willingly and without pay. Volunteer (verb): to offer oneself for some service or undertaking or to enter service or enlist as a volunteer. The word itself originates from the Middle French word voluntaire which means “voluntary,” which originated from the Latin voluntarius meaning “voluntary, of one’s free will”. It is a word that is often used in our society and has great meaning to the nonprofit sector and causes around the world, but what is the value of a volunteer and their act of volunteering?
The question of measuring the impact and the value of a volunteer is a long standing one. Common measurements seek to attach a monetary “value” to the time given by a volunteer based on the hours of service they perform. The latest national average value for an hour of volunteer time is $23.07, and in Montana, an hour of volunteering is worth $19.89. In 2014, the Corporation for National and Community Service put the value of 62.6 million people volunteering in the United States at $173 billion. An enormous contribution to the economy and society of the United States to be sure, but is that how to understand the value of volunteering?
Volunteering is not about money. This is a standard foundation of our understanding about volunteering. Some positions might offer reimbursement to volunteers for costs, but that reimbursement is not why those people volunteer. Volunteering is about giving, contributing, and helping other individuals and the community as a whole. Volunteering is the act of working with others to make a meaningful contribution to their community in the hopes of bettering it. While the monetary estimation of the value of volunteer time is a useful measurement, it lacks something. It is after all only an economic measurement and equates volunteering with free labor. It reduces volunteerism to hours worked instead of examining the contribution that those volunteers made.
So, how do we understand the value of a volunteer’s work? This is where it becomes truly complicated, as volunteers engage in thousands of different activities. Many feed the homeless or needy, others visit shut-ins to provide human companionship, others build houses, some clean parks, many tutor children to prepare them for school and some assist with medical services. All of these have an impact on their communities at differing levels. What value can you place on the time spent with a child that provides that child with the tools to succeed in school and, thus, in life? How can you grasp the difference a clean and safe park makes to a family? What is the worth of these activities?
Rather than trying to fathom the monetary value of volunteers or the abstract worth of the services they perform, imagine what it would be like if no one volunteered. What would the community look like if no one showed up to help? What basic needs would go unmet? What opportunities to grow as a community and as a society would be lost? Perhaps the true value of volunteering can’t be found trying to understand the benefit gained from those who volunteer. Instead, consider where we would be without them and recognize what we would lose every day without them. Thank you all for your dedicated service; you are truly invaluable.